Second Encyclopedia of Tlön

One of my knowledgeable readers (Jack Ginsburg) has alerted me to the fact that Joshua Heller has a wonderful interactive web site about the Second Encyclopedia of Tlön (see my last post).  It comes up automatically when you go to the Joshua Heller Rare Books web site.  Once the page that shows the full encyclopedia has loaded, click on  ‘The Books’ link that is in the black banner.  The set of volumes will suddenly appear in a fanned-out line and if you mouse over one of the volumes it begins to pull out from the ‘shelf’ at which point you can click on it to bring it forward.  Clicking again will open up a window with a description and several page spreads from that volume (use the “Instructions” link to find out more on how to navigate).  The pages shown on Heller’s site are often different from those on the Encyclopedia’s own site (accessible by clicking the images in my last post) so between the two, you can get a nice sense of the contents.

The more I explore the opus, the more I realize how much it is not just a conceptual and visual encyclopedia, but also an encyclopedic experiment in all sorts of different image-making techniques.  Printing on everything from creamy handmade paper to phone book pages, using everything from offset printing to wood-type letterpress, the books use overprinting, negative image printing, collage, digital image manipulation, text-as-image, and more to create the wide-ranging stylistic interpretations that makes up the Encyclopedia.


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Even More Books from the Hybrid Book Fair

A continuation of my last post, this one will conclude my discussion of interesting books I saw at the Hybrid Book Fair.

Second Encyclopaedia of Tlön 

AtlaS volume from the Second Encyclopaedia of Tlön

Atlas volume from the Second Encyclopaedia of Tlön

Rouge volume from the Second Encyclopaedia of Tlön

Rouge volume from the Second Encyclopaedia of Tlön

The ability to charm and amuse without descending into empty frivolity or clever cynicism is an enviable talent. It requires a unexpected turn of mind coupled with a serious intelligence. And it takes just such a mind to undertake a project like the Second Encyclopaedia of Tlön. A collaboration of german artists Peter Malutzki and Ines von Ketelhodt, The Encyclopedia, 10 years in the making and comprising 50 volumes, is a response to the Jorge Luis Borges short story Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius. In Borges’s philosophically sophisticated story, Tlön is a fictional land (with no nouns in its language) which slowly over the course of the story begins to manifests actual artifacts in the real world (the real world of Borges’s fictional story that is…). Presented first as a mysterious land that exists only as an entry that appears to come and go in the Anglo-American Cyclopedia, the narrator begins an obsession with the place and eventually come across a single volume from an Encyclopedia of TlönMalutzki and von Ketelhodt take up the challenge and create an entire encyclopedia of the fictional land and do so with great creativity and style. Using a keyword for each volume, Air, Flora, Labyrinth, Nacht, Rouge, etc. they artistically investigate a series of themes  (there are the element books, the color books, etc.) over the course of their encyclopedia.

Quiz volume from the Second Encyclopaedia of Tlön

Quiz volume from the Second Encyclopaedia of Tlön

One of the remarkable aspects of the endeavor is the strong differences in graphic style, content, and layout of each volume, a difference that is more than just a difference between those volumes done by Malutzki and those done by von Ketelhodt. Each keyword engenders a unique work, some humorous, some contemplative, some cryptic, each a world unto themselves. Both artists engage seriously the philosophical, epistemological, and literary themes of Borges’s story, weaving their own selection of well-known authors into the texts of their volumes, but not without a measure of humor—the Leibniz volume which explores the philosopher’s De Arte Combinatoria has as its cover a silver-grey image of a Leibniz cookie and the Atlas volume reconceives the topographical lines of maps as outlines of hungry creatures eyeing each other, ready to pounce (see the 1st image above).

The Second Encyclopaedia of Tlön  is a true tour de force not only capturing a wide variety of ideas, but also using just about every reproductive and artistic technique you can think of: collage, linocut, letterpress, offset, each volume uses its own combination of techniques to embody its topic. For those of us not able to afford the well-justified price of the Encyclopaedia, a catalog of the work provides a good substitute.  A beautiful work itself, this multi-lingual catalog reproduces Borges’s story and provides commentary from librarians and curators on each of the volumes followed by a generous sampling of images from each volume. Borgesian in its layout, the book employs a color-coded notational system to link and cross-reference the 3 sections.

Die Luft ist Kühl und es Dunkelt : ein Rheinbuch


Die Luft ist Kühl und es Dunkelt : Ein Rheinbuch

As impressive as it is, the Encyclopaedia was not the only thing that has occupied these artists. Peter Malutzki, for instance, was showing a wonderful book, Die Luft ist Kühl und es Dunkelt : ein Rheinbuch .  Divided into three parts, the book explores the history, ambiance, and appeal of the legendary Rhine river. In the first section, the river literally runs through the pages, as Malutzki interprets each section of the river, playfully at times (he has castles on either side throwing rocks at each other in a notoriously narrow part of the river).

Ein Rheinbuch section 2

Ein Rheinbuch section 2

The central section of the book transforms the river into a stream of words in two colors, set mirroring each other, one representing the French and the other the German perspective (the river was a contentious boundary point between the two countries throughout history).

In the last part, reconciliation finally occurs, signaled by a typographical change that sees the river running at angles up and down the page with text and images crossing over it, the two side intertwining. It is in this third section that Malutzki most reveals his personal love of the river, recreating a sense of its beauty in the darkling light.

Tree Portraits by Melanie Mowinski

Tree Portraits - Alaska Series

Tree Portraits - Alaska Series

An entirely different approach to a personally significant natural phenomenon, Melanie Mowinski’s Tree Portraits express her interest in bringing the outdoors into interior spaces. She has done several series of tree portraits, each from different areas where she has spent time. The Alaska Series was the one that I looked at, and it records trees residing in Denali National Park.  Each series is made up of a boxed set of pamphlets, one for each tree, the pages of which are rubbings from the tree’s trunk. A simple idea representing a simple phenomena, but rich in its visual variety.  The pages take on a mesmerizing progression of pattern  as each part of the tree (including graffiti carved into one of the trunks) is revealed through the subtle shadings that translate the tree’s bark onto a flat page.

East West by Leilei Guo

East West

East West

The last book I want to mention is Leilei Guo’s East/West. The artist came all the way from Beijing to the book fair and her work juxtaposes cultural artifacts from both the east and the west.  Iconic images make their way through the book, as silk-screened silhouettes,  as cutouts,, and finally as photographic images where they reveal themselves to be copies in a storage yard of cheap imitations.

East West

East West

The images alternate between eastern and western cultural artifacts and they invade each others pages with aplomb, a pink Venus de Milo looking coy as two Buddhas peek through a cutout window.  An intriguing structure, the book consists of stiff panels that move on hinged flanges, allowing the book a fair amount of movement despite its stiffness.

East West verso pages

East West verso pages

Bright colored pages, silk-screened with an abstracted background pattern, the pages reverse to more somber colors. Scattered between the silk-screened pages are the outdoor storehouses of statuettes.

East West photo page

East West photo page

It is these images that have been echoed throughout the book, but here what had appeared as singular images, are now shown in the context from which they had been drawn – not museums or cultural sites but fields of  cultural icons reproduced out of scale and thrown together in a hodgepodge of cultural kitsch.

Hybrid Book Fair Awards

And to wrap things up, a list of the prizes awarded at the Fair:

JAB: 800,000 by Bill Snyder and Baghdad Times by Antonio Serna

Free Library of Philadelphia: The works of Bea Nettles

Wellesley: The Way to Empty by Sun Young Kang

Swarthmore: Typography of Home by Macey Chadwick

Yale: Cunning Chapters by Susan Johanknecht

University of Pennsylvania: A Guide to Higher Learning by Julie Chen

Columbia University: A Pink Story by Maureen McCallum

Philadelphia Center for the Book: The Way to Empty by Sun Young Kang

Jaffe Center for Book Arts: Handmade Vegetable Papyrus by Robert Lewis

Temple University: Good/Best by Else Wiener

University of the Arts: Catalog forthe Second Encyclopaedia of Tlön by Peter Malutzki and Ines von Ketelhodt

Bright Hill Press: Mimpish Squinnies by Lone Oak Press

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More from the Hybrid Book Fair

Well my email inbox tells me that readers are clamoring for more about the Hybrid Book Fair.  Sorry for the delay – I got back from the conference and promptly flew away again.  But now I’m back and have added some images to my last posting on the Fair and have the next installment below.

Robin Price, 43

Robin Price's 43

Robin Price's 43

Clever, visually enticing, introspective, humorous, Robin Price’s 43 is a delightful response to a 43rd birthday.  Price has concocted a book structured around the number 43 in every way you can imagine.  Having compiled a personal bibliography of 86 (twice 43, see?) books which have played a significant role in her life, Price began counting in them, forwards and backward – pages, sentences, words – to find the gems that might lie at the 43rd position.  She then took these texts and laid them out on translucent pages which float above sections of maps (all from the 43rd parallel)  to spell out the themes in her life. Undulating shapes beneath starkly gridded text combine into a visual harmony. A river, running through the whole book and printed on the translucent paper seems to merge with the maps below confounding one’s perception of the different layers.  It is a wonderful book, especially when you start to read all the excerpts from her autobibliogaphy  (to coin a term; this book makes me want to invent new vocabulary…).

Emily Larned, Stock Project

Emily Larned's Stock Project

Emily Larned's Stock Project

A set of  3 socio-economic broadsides, available individually or as a set, Emily Larned’s Stock Project is appropriately printed on old defunct stock certificates. Bold black lettering, turned sideways and printed over the delicate engraving of the originals, proclaims the misguided impetus of putting too much stock in the name or price of an object. Taking her theme a step further, Larned changed the price of the broadsides throughout the day on Friday in response to the vagaries of the Dow Jones Average.  Calling in each hour to learn the current price of the DJA, she increased or decreased the price of the prints accordingly. True to the nature of our economic markets, once the closing bell hit on Friday, the price was set for the rest of the Fair.

I have to mention another project Larned was showcasing (but of which I don’t have pictures): ILSSA aka Impractical Labor in Service of the Speculative Arts, a collaborative venture with Bridget Elmer which you too can join and support the movement that “favors independent workshop production by antiquated means and in relatively limited quantities.” The joyous perversity with which they turn conventional economic wisdom on its head, declaring as their mission “as many hours as it takes,” is indicative of the new flavor of DIY in the 21st century.

Carolee Campbell/Ninja Press,  The Intimate Stranger

Ninja Press The Intimate Stranger

Ninja Press The Intimate Stranger

Carolee Campell of Ninja Press was showing a new book, still in proof form, called (I believe) The Persephones, which utilized a lovely wash of ink stippled by means of salt sprinkled onto the wet paper which sucked up all the ink surrounding it and left a gorgeous mottled pattern.  But, true to form, the book I took pictures of was fundamentally geometric and symbolic in nature. The Intimate Stranger is made up of sheets cut to reveal sections of subsequent pages and designed to create a visual harmony between spreads.  Geometrically geographic in design, each page spread combines printed shapes and lines that interact with the cuts in the sheets; as the pages are turned, lines that had formed one trajectory on a former spread, take on a new role on the next spread, creating an interconnected landscape in which the text is positioned.

Stay tuned for more from the Fair….

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Report from the Hybrid Book Fair

I’ve just finished my first day at the Hybrid Book Conference and Book Fair (hosted by the University of the Arts in Philadelphia) and so far it has been filled with interesting panels/presentations and a great book fair.  Since I’m reviewing the conference for CAA Reviews, I’ll hold off on my comments about the program and concentrate here on some of the compelling books I saw for sale at the fair.  The fair has more than 70 vendors and takes up two floors so I haven’t yet begun to make my way all the way through, but already I’ve discovered works and artists that I’m delighted to know about.

Margot Lovejoy’s The Book of Plagues is not a new work, but she was featuring it because it was printed here at the Borowsky Center.  The book is a montage of imagery and information about plagues – from the 1300s to the present day.  Mixing microscopic images of the AIDS virus with woodcuts of plague doctors in their beaked masks, the book unfolds in a complicated two-way structure.  A second book, Paradoxic Mutations, long and skinny and with an equally complicated strucutre, was something she made at the same time using the parts of the sheet of paper that were unused for the plague book.

In Cahoots Press

In Cahoots Press

Macy Chadwick’s In Cahoots Press had some interesting new works.  Despite the differences in topics in her books  – everything from geometry to string alphabets for the blind,  there is a visually cohesive vocabulary that runs through her work.   Chadwick’s book, The Topography of Home, was one of the award winners at the show (it is the one pictured in the bottom left of the picture).

Half Life/Full Life

Half Life/Full Life

Perhaps Chip Schilling’s Half Life/Full Life especially intrigued me, because I’ve actually seen the Doomsday clock (it being housed on the Univ of Chicago campus in the offices of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists), but it really is of interest to all of us who have lived through the political ups and downs that have caused its movement over the past six decades.  The book opens up into a freestanding circular structure, each opening of which includes an event that has precipitated the movement of the clock’s hands – from the fall of the Berlin Wall that set it 17 minutes away from midnight, to the thermonuclear device testing in the 50s that brought it as close as one minute to midnight.  To add some perspective, Schilling has paired these momentous events, with  popular culture going on at the time—top movies, songs, etc.—revealing the human ability to continue living in the face of near crisis, or the human inability to grapple with serious issues, depending on your perspective.

I also had an interesting conversation with Thomas Parker Williams who is mixing his own inks using transparent base and pigments from Kremer.   He was showing me the effects of differnt ratios of pigment to base and seeing as this is something I’ve been thinking about doing for some time, it was quite inspiring.

Time to head off to the conference again, so I will have more to report later.

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The Allure of Postal Mail

[Note: If you are looking for the blog post that is a companion to my Spring 2009 Journal of Artists’ Books article on the Pyramid Atlantic Critic’s awards, you can read it here.]


Mail from last week

I love the mail. I don’t get nearly enough of it (at least not of the good kind), though whether that is because I live in Chicago where there’s a good chance that my mail is stuffed under some carrier’s porch, or because email has killed the letter (and with it that marvelously crisp, cockled onionskin paper that people used to type on and which I need for an artist’s book and am dismayed to have discovered is no longer manufactured…) it is sometimes hard to tell.

Let’s start again.  I love mail. Last week, at least, the mail brought all sorts of delights, so despite this week’s hike in the postal rate I want to write a paean to old-fashioned, paper-in-envelope mail.  Now I have to admit that it was primarily what was inside my mail that was so exciting: My friend Tate Shaw’s latest artist’s book, The Placeholders, which arrived out of the blue; a copy of The New Manifesto of the Newlights Press which I had ordered, several old books about color (see last post), and a couple of sheets of onionskin paper (see comment above).  I’ll write about the  two artists’ books in future posts but today I want to focus on how these items took part in an age-old art of exchange of physical objects through a vast, networked, mediated system and why this system has so inspired artists.

Visual Individuality

screen of email

screen of email

Two of these items had the added treat of creative, DIY packaging.  Tate had taken an image from his artist’s book and enlarged it to perfectly fit the front half of one of those soft, brown mailers, transforming the ubiquitously dull kraft paper into a harbinger of its content (see picture above). When you receive something like that, you know it is going to be good.  Which brings me to my first observation: I can mentally sort my postal mail using visual clues in a way that is impossible with email. Compare this screenshot of my email inbox with stack of mail pictured above. Everything in my inbox has been rendered mute through the democratization of the interface. Each message takes up one line in the same sans serif font. I cannot easily distinguish the interesting message from the spam.  Or if I can, it is only through the crudest of distinctions (those spams that are  all in Cyrillic). But I have to actually read the subject and from lines to begin to sort out my email and find what is interesting or pressing. Compare that to the intricate visual clues we have and use to evaluate our postal mail. I don’t have to read any words to know I can throw away the ubiquitous Comcast flyer. Partly it is the size (always a slightly too big rectangle to fit my mailbox and so often torn around the edges); partly the paper (glossy, 70lb cardstock); partly the colors of the logo; all physical elements that conspire to make the piece instantly identifiable. Interesting mail is equally distinguishable—the shape of a holiday card; the bulge of a wedding invitation bursting with its hospitality; anything from my mother, even in a plain white envelope, made instantly identifiable by her handwriting on the address. There is a potential for individuation in mail that mirrors that in artist’s books (see, I’m not straying too far from my book art theme)—the ability to create a cohesive structure that declares itself from first glance and carries through to final read.


Another one of the envelopes I got last week was a delightful Egyptian-themed #10-sized envelope (see picture at start of post). It was sent to me by Leslie Cefali, a stranger who had the generosity to respond to my Book-Arts_L call for onionskin paper by sending me some samples of what she had in order to check if they would suit my needs.  Not knowing her, the envelope threw me for a loop at first, even though we had corresponded via email. But despite my inability to immediately divine what was inside, I knew it was something interesting not only because of the vibrant mural that marched around the envelope but because the sender had taken care to match the theme of the stamps to the theme of the envelope.  Or so I thought. Once I opened it up, I realized that the entire thing was made out of an old calendar picture, cut and folded up to eek out a new purpose after it had outlived its usefulness to mark time. Even the stamps had been fabricated – complete with perforated edges to seal the look that had fooled me upon first glance.  A single real postage stamp among the several striking images of mummy’s heads and eyes guaranteed its arrival at my doorstep.

Frank Magnotta's page of stamps from The Book of Stamps

Frank Magnotta's page of stamps from The Book of Stamps

There is a fascination with stamps that has galvanized artists time and time again.  Miniature pictures attached to an envelope guaranteeing delivery of everything from a gracious thank you note to a mundane bill payment to any place around the globe—it is stunning when you think of it.  Serendipitously, in my week of good mail, I stopped by Powell’s Book Store on my way home from work and came upon a book by Cabinet, one of my favorite art and culture journals.  The Book of Stamps was a project that commissioned artists to create sets of stamps all of which are then cleverly reproduced twice – once as pages of perforated, glue-backed, tear-out stamps and once as a permanent page of the book itself. The artists’ responses ranged from an Arcimboldi-style stamp man whose face fills the sheet with each stamp only representing a part, to a set whose pictures all were of materials that cannot be shipped through the mail.

The Radio Post

The Radio Post

The Radio Post

So now that I have my Book of Stamps, I have to decide if I am willing to tear  out these miniature pieces of art and use them on things, which is no easy prospect for someone who loves the integrity of things. Of course I realize the integrity of this publication is to be deconstructed by its reader, but I still hate to tear out the stamps. Conceptually I like the idea but viscerally, I resist. If I do decide to use them, I know the first thing I will do with them: decorate the envelope I will be sending to Denmark requesting a copy of The Radio Post #1.  The Radio Post is a publication which you can get for free, but only if you send your request via the post.  Write them a letter and they’ll send you a publication (it is all about analogue: radios, lighthouses, recording studios, etc.).  Now there is someone who understands the allure of the postal mail.

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History of Color

Chevreul's Principles of Harmony and Contrast of Colors

Chevreul's Principles of Harmony and Contrast of Colors

I’ve been home sick with a cold and in my fevered state have come up with my dream class to teach to  book art students. The subject would be  the history of color—which may come as no surprise to anyone who knows me and my fascination with this topic, but I believe there really is more to this idea than just my own personal passions (and the fact that I would find this such a fun class to teach!).

Think what apt training this would be for book art students seeing how, like book arts itself, it sits at the crossroads between several different disciplines. For one thing, the history of color could serve as a focal point to combine issues in the history of the book with those in the history of art.  Developments in pigments, dyes, and inks have had profound effects on both book production (think, for instance, of Gutenberg’s development of oil-based ink) and painting (where would the Impressionists have been without their new synthetic paints in tubes?). Currently, book art programs still tend to be framed around traditional divisions. We teach the history of the book (I, in fact, teach the history of the book—I’m not exactly knocking that), but if we want to encourage students to think of the book in radically different ways, shouldn’t we also be teaching from a perspective that shows its history intersecting and intertwining with that of art instead? Or perhaps even more to the point, show how it overlaps with entirely different disciplines (so often set up in false dichotomies): the relationship between color-making and alchemy, medicine, chemistry, not to mention industrial manufacturing, has a rich history.

Raphael's Leo X with Cardinals

Raphael's Leo X with Cardinals

When you scrape your ink knife across the top of that can of ink and pull out a lovely red, are you thinking of aspirin? (Bayer began by making paints as well as pharmaceuticals, and mauve, of course, was discovered by accident in the search to cure malaria)  or perhaps you are imagining the little bugs gathered off of cactus plants in the new world and crushed to dye the cardinal’s robes crimson (and still used to color that Campari you’re fond of sipping on a hot summer day) and the subsequent development of the field of organic chemistry in the search to find a synthetic substitute for that brilliant red.

The yellow to blue oxidation process of indigo

The yellow to blue oxidation process of indigo

Speaking of intersections, in this dream class I am teaching at a dream school that does not pigeon-hole courses as  either history/theory or studio but never both.  In my dream class the students would move back and forth equally between seminars and practical experiments. We live in a era that presumes color ubiquity and yet the entire history of color has been one of overcoming the physical, economic, geographical, etc. limitations of color. And to really understand this you need to get your hands into it. You have to work with malachite to see how the finer you grind the lighter the green gets – color and texture unremittingly tied in a frustratingly inverse relationship.  Once you’ve made a lake or experimented with dyes it becomes transparent how fortunes could be built on the control of alum mines (the Medicis held the papal monopoly). And of course the urge to incorporate color into books and the endless problems thereof is one of the more interesting parts of this story.  History comes alive in the studio, the studio is enriched by theory, why leave the connections to be made between the classes, not in them?

Goethe's Theory of Colours

Goethe's Theory of Colours

And then, of course, there is color theory. Raised as so many of us were on the 64-box of Crayola crayons and an idealized, simplified theory of color (yellow+blue=green) we are often unduly ignorant of the complexities of color theory, let alone the art of color mixing. I wonder how many book art students could tell you the differences between Newton and Goethe, Rood and Munsell? And how many could speak at length about what they consider to be the primary colors and why? (they aren’t necessarily red, yellow, and blue—really).  Doesn’t the best learning come when we break open our assumptions. It is hard to fully understand what we know until we have seen it questioned and the more we know the more we can do interesting things with our printing. Spot color layering, CMYK printing, pantone mixing, color wheels—what do you gain, what do you lose with each?  Systems entail choices and choices entail compromises. It seems all the more pertinent, as many students increasingly use the computer for pre-press operations, to understand the difference between additive and subtractive color systems or to recognize that moving from RGB to CMYK involves more  than just choosing a menu option. Hmm, did I just hear the word gamut float across the breeze…?  And we haven’t even begun to talk about the physiology of color and how our brains interpret and respond to it. So many interesting angles.

And now, of course, we’ve come to the point at which all good readers may be asking the question—”isn’t this really just an excuse for you to buy more books about color? I note, for instance, a copy of Ridgway’s Color Standards and Color Nomenclature on ebay at the moment…”  Well yes, I don’t deny that is a legitimate point, the truth of which is only tempered by my inability to afford all those wonderful old books with their hand painted swatches or pasted-in color chips (didn’t I mention the historical challenges to actually reproducing color in books…).

From Brian Kennons Black and White Reproductions of The Abstract Expressionists

From Brian Kennon's Black and White Reproductions of The Abstract Expressionists

So to divert your attention, perhaps I’ll end with an artist’s book from 2nd Cannons Publications that rather delights me. Brian Kennon’s Black and White Reproductions of the Abstract Expressionists abstracts the colors in 13 abstract expressionist painting into simple color swatches printed alongside black and white reproductions of the art, with lines pointing to where each color belongs.  It isn’t just the idea of abstracting an abstraction that makes this book so interesting. It is what it reveals about the role of color—the falseness that occurs when the colors are rendered equal through uniform-sized color squares, through reduction to an over-simplified color palette.  In separating form from color, Kennon points our attention to how subtle the action of color actually is in art. And this isn’t even to begin to discuss the fact the Kennon has made color swatches that are not always accurate in tonal value to the original paintings, thus creating a work with its own independent aesthetic tone and feel.

Now if only someone would let me teach my class….

[Many thanks the The Special Collections Research Center at the University of Chicago Library for the following images: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. [Zur Farbenlehre.] Erklärung Der Zu Goethe’s Farbenlehre Gehörigen Tafeln. Tübingen: Cotta, 1810 and M. E. Chevreul, Des Couleurs Et De Leurs Applications Aux Arts Industriels à l’Aide Des Cercles Chromatiques. Paris: J.B. Ballière, 1864.]

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On Judging the Pyramid Atlantic Critic’s Award

Anatomy of Insanity by Maureen Cummins

Anatomy of Insanity by Maureen Cummins

Last November I had the honor of judging the JAB-sponsored Critic’s Award for the Pyramid Atlantic Book Fair. Artists’ books take such a wide variety of interesting forms, I ended up giving two awards, one to  Anatomy of Insanity by Maureen Cummins and one to Karaoke by Masumi Shibata. The former is a visual interpretation of diagnosis patterns found in 19th century records of a mental hospital, and the latter is an experiment in visually manifesting the author’s experience of the memory-laden sound of karaoke.

Masumi Shibata's Karaoke

Masumi Shibata's Karaoke

You may be wondering why I am writing about this just now; well I’m happy to announce the release of JAB25, the Spring 2009 issue of JAB: The Journal of Artists’ Books which contains my full review of these two books and why I chose them, but I didn’t have room in that article to articulate the criteria I used when judging and, more generally, some of the things I think about when looking at (or making) an artist’s book. So I thought I would do that here as a companion to the printed article.

Judging requires a certain degree of focus, lest you get lost in the sea of possibilities, so I focused on 3 aspects of book art that I was looking for:

  • Visually and tactilely compelling
  • Content that takes me somewhere (but where the art, not the content, does the heavy lifting)
  • Structural integrity

Criteria 1: Visually and Tactilely Compelling

It may seem odd to combine these two criteria into one since they involve two very different senses, but I find it can sometimes be difficult to extricate the one from the other when analyzing my reaction to a work.  The materials used in a piece can have such a significant impact on its visual experience.  [Of course both are also intertwined with, and affected by, the book’s meaning as well, but I am speaking here just of the sensory experience of the work.]

I do not think that there are any visual forms, or production methods, or materials that are intrinsically better than others, but I do believe that materials have particular qualities and certain combinations can work at cross purposes—the character of the images straining against the texture of their paper for instance—which detracts from the overall effect of the piece. I found this in some of what I saw at the book fair—things that almost worked but left me feeling like something was lacking. Soft, dreamy images on hard shiny paper, for instance. I want a satsifying sensory experience as much as an intellectually compelling one.

Taking on the role of an award judge made me painfully aware of the somewhat accidental, personal nature of sensory taste. [I mean accidental in the philosophic sense in which it stands opposite essential]. What I find visually and tactilely appealing may say as much about me as about the piece itself. I sometimes feel helpless in the face of my senses, having  aesthetic longings for sensory enjoyments that I cannot achieve. I have always wanted, for instance, to like brussels sprouts (for reasons ranging from my delight in the odd way in which they grow like ping pong balls on stalks to a recognition of the great delicacy they are considered to be when smothered in browned butter), but no amount of intellectual understanding of these attractions can cajole the small bumps on my tongue to find the taste of a brussels sprout anything but awful. Almost more disconcerting is the way in which taste can suddenly change without warning or explanation (asparagus used to be in my brussels sprout camp, but now I adore it). Interestingly, I’ve always found my visual sense to be more ‘trainable’ and open to learning to enjoy new things than are some of my other senses.

Nonetheless, I do believe that there are aesthetic principles that can make a piece of visual art more universally compelling and effective.  Part of the process of judging is focusing more on these aspects and less on the quirks of one’s own personal taste. The burden of judging lies in the recognition that the latter inevitably plays a role even when the former is well satisfied.

Criteria 2: Content That Takes Me Somewhere

The importance of content in artists’ books has lately become something of a rallying cry in the field, though there still remains a need to explore what, exactly, that means.  I would maintain that content does not equal text—visual imagery can speak as eloquently as the best turned phrase—but it does imply a certain level of specificity.  The kind of specificity that gives shape and substance to an idea. I want a work to take me somewhere, whether that be to contemplation, or insight, or  laughter, I want to find when I reach the end of a book that I have arrived at somewhere more than a cliche. I want to feel that the artist has let me share in their unique vision of the world. I don’t require that the content be of a serious nature in order to be substantial. Humor, beauty, whimsical delight—all are as significant components of a full life as the political outrage, pain, and suffering that too often masquerades as the only scope for ‘important’ art.

Questions I ask myself when looking at a piece include: what specifically does this work say about its subject? and is that interesting or does it remain in the realm of the obvious? is the content contained within the work or is it merely a pointer after which I have to use my own knowledge of the subject to fill in the gaps? is half the content in a lengthy explanation in the colophon or is it fully played out within the pages of the book itself?

These questions underly my comment that I want the art, not the content, to do the heavy lifting in a work of art. The depth of meaning in a piece should come from the artistic interpretation of the subject, not from the external importance or inherent interest of the topic. This seems to be especially problematic with the hot issues of the day. How many book have you seen on X (fill in the blank with the topic du jour: war, child abuse, depression, global warming, political repression, etc) that really don’t say much except maybe that X happens (i know that) or that X is bad (i know that too). Do something more than point at a topic and let it do all the heaving lifting.  Don’t use the topic’s own emotional impact as a crutch to move me. Tell me something uniquely your own about it. Show me the details of what it looks like, or how it plays out in the human experience. Examine the contradictions. Make the art speak.

Criteria 3: Structural Integrity

Book artists have the luxury of control. Control over their layouts, control over their materials, control over their constructions. I like to see books where that control is used to create a structurally-integrated whole in which the formal elements complements, enhances, and/or completes the meaning of the book.

Structure is the architectural, spatial elements of a book and it can be played out both in the 3-dimensional elements like the binding and shape of the book, as well as the 2-dimensional relationships of elements such as the layout of the page or page spread. Structural integrity can take many forms, sometimes subtle—quietly complementing the piece, and sometimes central—shaping the primary mode of the experience. My desire for structural integrity does not require that a book’s structure take the lead role, just that there be a consonance between the book’s meaning and its structure; that they not fight each other. Shibata uses a plain codex binding and simple materials for Karaoke, but it suits the book perfectly.

On the other hand, in some books, the layering of different structural elements can be effectively utilized to create a rich experience.  Cummin’s Anatomy of Insanity, for instance, does not stop at a structure merely imitative of its subject (the book is bound as though it were medical record), but further employs that structure to convey elements of the book’s meaning: the male and female sections are juxataposed so they can be viewed simultaneously; the pages have a translucence that compounds the visual impact of the differences between the male and female diagnoses.

I have been speaking of all these elements as though they can be treated separately, but in truth I find them far more intertwined than that. Beautiful materials do little if they don’t mesh with the content of the book; structural elements can rely on the types of materials used, intriguing structure don’t save banal content. The point is not to think of them as a checklist of elements, which might all too easily lead to their mindless exploitation (“use handmade paper—special collections librarians love it” I once heard it advised, as though the element existed independent from the context of its book), but rather to ask something of the books we look at and make; to inquire into how their constituent components interact to form our experience. Always ask. Ever question.

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Figuring Absence, pt 4: Long & Freeman’s Chicago Stock Yards Book

We left off our discussion of absence with Stalin’s revisionist approach to history and the question of whether or not he succeeded in erasing the past through willful obliteration.

by Brad Freeman and Elisabeth Long

by Brad Freeman and Elisabeth Long

This leads me to our last book which is about different kind of historical absence, one not imposed by a political agenda and layers of ink, but rather the result of obsolescence and layer upon layer of time passing.   The Chicago Stock Yards Book was a collaboration between Brad Freeman and I on the subject of the Chicago Stockyards, an infamous area on the south side of Chicago that was finally closed down and razed back in the 1970s.  One of the themes of the book is this way in which things manage to persist even in their apparent absence – how hard it is to eradicate a vibrant past. We started by comparing two maps – one from the 19th century, an old birds-eye view engraving of the stockyards in its heyday, and one from the present day – a satellite view of the area as it looks now. What the maps showed us was that you could see the footprint of the old yards still evident in the modern statellite view. That as a place changes over time, the things that are apparently absent have actually left all sorts of patterns and traces.

Chicago Stock Yard Book

Chicago Stock Yards Book: Opening spread

And as we explored, map in hand, the area that had once been the stockyards and was now an industrial park, we found that if we looked closely enough we could see these traces of the past.  But the looking required the right distance—different distances render different truths.  Our usual kind of looking, the one that simply shows us the present laid out before us, is a view of the middle distance. But if you pull back far enough (like the satellite)  or examine the details closely, that is where you find the flickerings of the absent still evident all around us.

Brad taking pictures on left page, Picture of Bubbly Creek circa 1913 on right page

Page spread. Left page: Brad taking pictures near an old packing plant; Right page: News photo of Bubbly Creek, 1913 overlaid on picture of the cattle pens

This artists’ book was an attempt to reintroduce the absent to the present.  Taking inspiration from rephotography projects, we searched for places that were on our maps—the hair drying fields, the manure pile, the packing factories, replaced now by overgrown rail tracks, a Chinese food packaging plant, a Tyson’s Foods warehouse. The book itself then reinterpreted the experience—printed on the back sides of our two maps it is filled with images both from our sojourn and from historical books on the stockyards, facts about the stockyard’s production and textual reflections on all the relationships therein.  The act of folding this map/pagelayout sheet into codex signatures resulted in an interspersing of old map, new map, text, modern photograph, historical image all mixed up together as they were in our minds and in the space around us.

Text and image expresses the vibrancy of the stockyards—a gruesome business that nonetheless was teaming with life—and contrasts it with the nondescript quiet of the current-day industrial park.  The layering of new on old (or old on new) was explored further through the collage of modern day and historical images and the repetition of image such that as you turn the pages and each spread appears to be a new set of subjects, ghosts of previous images still remain—a visual resonance used to express how our past is never quite absent from our present.  [No matter what Stalin may have thought he could do.]

These four very different books that were each about absence in one way or another show us just how complex and multi-faceted a theme can be.  What makes an artist’s book work well is that many facets of the book form are actively brought to play in the foreground of the work. (text, image, format, texture, the 3dimensional aspects, etc). None of these plays the crystal goblet in an artist’s book.  It is this complexity of foregrounded components that makes an artist’s book such a good vessel for expressing the complexity of our experience.  I hope this [talk] essay has give you a small taste of that.

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Figuring Absence, pt 3: Ken Campbell’s Ten Years in Uzbekistan

In the last post we explored a book which centered around the personal experience of absence. Following is the continuation of the transcription of my CBAA presentation, Figuring Absence, in which I now explore the political experience of absence.

Ten Years of Uzbekistan

Ten Years of Uzbekistan by Ken Campbell and David King

I’d like to turn now to a very different kind of absence. Ken Campbell and David King’s Ten Years of Uzbekistan takes up the disturbing issues of the absence of those who have been subject to political repression, and perhaps worse, the complicity required to effect such obliteration. Taking as a starting point, the book’s namesake – a work produced by the well-known Russian constructivist artist, Alexander Rodchenko, Campbell and King investigate and react to the history of Rodchenko’s book which saw the turning of the tides during Stalinist rule. The original Ten Years of Uzbekistan was Rodchenko’s celebration of the glory of the first ten years of soviet rule in the region. Published in 1934, it was a piece of propaganda, describing the advancements brought to the Uzbeki state, complete with portraits of politicians and other dignitaries of the area.  Not long passed, however, before Stalin’s purges began and many of these party dignitaries were declared enemies of the state to be reviled and sent to their deaths along with some million plus others during the 2-years of the purges.  But the Stalinist agenda was more thorough than just imprisonment and death. The purge had to happen at every level—books that pictured the newly-declared enemies were themselves banned and to be purged or destroyed.

The Commisar Vanishes: Falsification of Photographs and Art in Stalin’s Russia

The Commisar Vanishes: Falsification of Photographs and Art in Stalin’s Russia by David King

David King in his research found Rodchenko’s own copy of his book with the names and faces unceremoniously blotted out with large swaths of black ink—obliteration by the designer of his own work at the direction of a leader who ten years earlier had called for the creation of the book in the first place.  Through careful research and as part of his much larger project, The Commisar Vanishes: Falsification of Photographs and Art in Stalin’s Russia,  to record the doctoring of pictures under Stalin’s reign, King recovered the identities of each obliterated figure.  Campbell then transformed these images into a commentary not just on political repression but also a bitter judgment on the complicity of an artist in the act of censorship.  Campbell and King’s artists’ book version of Ten Years of Uzbekistan re-presents 10 of these obliterated images, accompanied by information identifying who each is and telling his or her story.

Ten Years of Uzbekistan

Ten Years of Uzbekistan

The first thing you notice about Campbell and King’s book, (besides its rather monumental size—it is 20 inches tall), is the heaviness of the ink.  Layer after layer is built up until you cannot even sense the texture of the paper underneath. The ink and its polychromatic glory becomes a subject itself , as though Campbell is saying to Rodchenko, “I see your ink and I raise you 10 layers.”  The focus of this artists’ book is not simply the tragic and untimely deaths of these political functionaries branded enemies of the state by Stalin’s dysfunctional reign of terror, but rather it is the fact of death and gulag not being sufficient—the need for total annihilation of all traces of the person—that is Campbell and King’s main concern. This is absence in the extreme.  Absent in body. Absent in image. Absent in Text. Absent in Memory.

From the first page, the book emphasizes inkish obliteration and censorship.  The black bars of the censor are repeated page after colorful page before the images even start. If you stare for long enough you realize that in the chaos of color, the title is being repeated and then occluded in layer upon layer of ink.

Ten Years of Uzbekistan - detail

Ten Years of Uzbekistan - detail

Then the images begin. Each person stamped bureaucratically with their number  in large graphic roman numerals.  The thick layers of ink are visually palpable.  Whatever ink he used is extremely shiny  (note the light reflection in many of my photographs) and it sits on the surface in such a way that each layer can be literally felt under those that come after it. [click the image to see a larger version which shows these layers more clearly.]

Each image appears multiple times. Once as it appeared in Rodchenko’s self-censored copy, and then again in many variations as part of Campbell’s on-the-press manipulations and experiments.  Plates are turned upside down and printed over each other, then overprinted again with the text of their stories.  Interestingly, what isn’t here are the unadulterated original images that David King had found through his research.  Again, I maintain this is because in some ways the people themselves are not the primary subject here, but rather the act of what was done to them.  It is hard for us to imagine the thoroughness of the Stalinist agenda—the ability to manipulate history to the point that people who were there were made absent, not to mention people who were absent being put there.  [A major part of the propaganda machine was not just airbrushing people out of photos, but also inserting Stalin into important historical communist scenes where he had not actually been present.]

Pages on Yan Rudzutak

Pages on Yan Rudzutak

So it is somewhat hard to pinpoint one single message in this book.  On the one hand, it could be said that Stalin’s obliteration agenda was a success.  For generations of soviets, these people did not exist.  Their absence was complete.  The difficulty we have with reading some of their stories because of Campbell’s inking techniques reflects, perhaps, a certain subdued acknowledgment of failure by the artist.  Is it too late to resurrect these men? Is this primarily an expression of the success of Stalin’s campaign and the horror at a fellow artist’s complicity in effecting it.

On the other hand, the obliteration didn’t succeed.  After all, King has rediscovered the identity of these people so long absent from history.  In the end, the propaganda machine failed to achieve its final goal, and perhaps this is what is symbolized by the defiantly lush, colorful abandon with which Campbell plays on the press achieving inky obliteration upon obliterations but, in the process, breathing a kind of life back into these men and their stories. It is as if through sufficient layers of ink laid down with this different purpose, that initial act of inked obliteration can be undone and the figures restored to history if not to life.

More information and images of the book are available on Ken Campbell’s website. [once there, click the image of the book to view the page images.]  In our next post we’ll look at the kind of historical absence that slowly occurs from innovation and change, as opposed to the directed and intentional absence enforced by political regimes.

I’d like to thank the Special Collections Research Center at the University of Chicago for access to their copy of Campbell’s book.

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Figuring Absence, pt 2: Sophie Calle’s Exquisite Pain

We left off the last post with the idea that belonging is a core part of our experiences of absence. Following is the continuation of the transcription of my CBAA presentation, Figuring Absence.

Exquiste Pain by Sophie Calle

Exquisite Pain by Sophie Calle

So let us now turn to Sophie Calle’s book Exquisite Pain which takes up both of this idea of absence as it relates to belonging and also examines that process in which the emotional presence of the absence becomes less over time (but in this case, quite intentionally and to good effect).

Exquisite Pain turns a failed love affair into a timeline of before and after the point at which her lover leaves her. “Before unhappiness” and “after unhappiness,” as she puts it. The underlying story is of the time when she received a three-month travel grant that she used to go to Japan at the end of which she and her lover planned a reunion in New Dehli. During her absence he begins an affair with someone else but in an act of pure cowardice not only doesn’t tell her but calls her several hours before their rendezvous saying he is getting on the plane for New Dehli.  She then arrives, in her outfit bought specially for the occasion, to be greeted with a cryptic note full of lies about how he’d been in an accident and couldn’t come. After hours on the phone trying to get through to him she finally does and instantly knows it is over and that he’d never intended to be there.


Before Unhappiness

The book is visually divided between the before and after.  The “before” section chronicles her trip, which she made by taking a train from France, through Russia, then China, finally to end up in Japan. Each day is counted down with a large bordercrossing-like stamp declaring the number of days left till unhappiness. Each page spread in the “before” section is framed in red – Red for Russia, Red for China, Red for Japan. Red for love. Red for anger. The layout of “before” is somewhat haphazard – sometimes there is text on the left and an image on the right,  sometimes an image spreads across both pages. It is often hard to tell where the images were taken or how they piece together into any kind of story. (You’ll see later how this contrasts with the “after” section.)


Day 0

The interesting thing about this section is of course the countdown.  The simple presence of that stamp, changes how you experience the images and stories being presented. Things take on a certain foreboding. History is rewritten to contain a prescience it didn’t have at the time, though she does admit to a fair amount of trepidation throughout the trip because her lover had told her he does not take well to being left alone. The pain of that moment when she realized he would no longer be there by her side is ever-present in the book: before, during, and after it actually occurred. The book is telling her story not by telling the actual story, but by rewriting it to visually and conceptually express the overwhelming centrality of the pain that she felt in that one moment of realization he was no longer a part of her life, and for several months afterwards. It is shown here by the only full-page spread without any frame. The picture of a red telephone on an empty bed in a hotel room in New Dehli. It is the zero point on the timeline and everything radiates out from it. The arc of the book’s narrative thus shows, what we talked about before – the idea of belonging and intentionality that is so integral to the idea of absence. This unnamed lover is, after all, not present throughout the entire book. But it is the absence on the intended day. The day of the reunion. The day he was supposed to be there, that matters. That is the absence. The rest is separation.

After Unhappiness

After Unhappiness

The second half of the book, “After unhappiness,” takes on a very different visual form. The layout is extremely rigid.  The left page is black, the right is white. On the top left is the picture of the phone – repeated on each page, and below it a narrative of the story of her affair and how he left her. On the right side are stories told by Calle’s friends in response to her question “When did you suffer most?” accompanied by a picture illustrating the story. Some are far more wrenching that what she is experiencing, and serve as a kind of foil to her pain.  What we are seeing, though this is not obvious at first, is the cure for her pain. The telling and retelling of her story is a process to reach the point in which she can see him for the jerk he truly is and rid herself of her pain.

Day 95

Day 95

One page after another the story gets shorter and the ink gets lighter as her pain fades.  What we are seeing is the opposite of what we saw in Meejin Yoon’s book. There the banality of sameness served to remind us of the inner conflict we may feel over our own forgetting of tragic events, not to mention the fleeting nature of the meaning in a memorial. Here, in Calle’s book, banality is used as a cure to the too little forgetting and as a memorial not to the object that was absent, but simply to the author’s past experience of that absence.

In the next installment we’ll take up political absence as explored in Ken Campbell’s lush letterpressed opus, Ten Years of Uzbekistan.

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