Interview with Woody Leslie — Part 1

I spoke with Woody Leslie via Skype on April 24. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Woody Leslie and his chicken, Lucida. Photo courtesy of the artist.

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 timescalethese 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 privateyou’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.

3 copies of Parsely by Woody Leslie; front cover and two inside spreads
Parsely. Photo courtesy of the artist.

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.

Screenshot of InDesign workspace
A work in progress in Adobe InDesign. Image courtesy of the artist.

LS: You talk about these stories being a 10-second anecdote you would just tell to a frienddo 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.

3 small books: Tiny Stories, Tinier Stories, and Tiniest Stories
One Page Productions’ Tiny Stories, Tinier Stories, and Tiniest Stories. Photo courtesy of the artist.

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 thatgiving 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.

Grocery Store Conversations; inside spread
Grocery Store Conversations. Photo courtesy of the artist.

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.

Woody Leslie playing sitar outdoors
A young Woody Leslie playing sitar. Photo courtesy of the artist.

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.

4 copies of Understanding Molecular Typography by H.F. Henderson
Self-published 2015 edition of Understanding Molecular Typography. Photo courtesy of the artist.

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.

Chicken coop in progress
Chicken coop in progress. Photo courtesy of the artist.

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 questionsremarkably 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.


False Fiction Fractured Fact Altered

Marilyn R. Rosenberg
2019
Post-Asemic Press

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

False Fiction Fractured Fact Altered front cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ISOLATIONS

ISOLATIONS
Marianne Dages
2019
Huldra Press

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

ISOLATIONS broadside and colophon

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

ISOLATIONS broadside

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

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

ISOLATIONS broadside, colophon and envelope

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

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

ISOLATIONS broadside and colophon inside envelope

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

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

ISOLATIONS colophon

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

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

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

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

Tiny Dino’s Grand Field Museum Adventure

Tiny Dino’s Grand Field Museum Adventure
Carley Gomez
2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inside spread; Tiny Dino Bruce meets another toy dinosaur

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

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

Inside spread; toy dinosaur in the museum gift shop

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

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

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

Voragem

Voragem
Isabel Baraona and Catarina Domingues
2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Voragem; first opening of the book's second side

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

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

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

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

Seed Vault

Seed Vault
Tim Robertson
2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Attenti al Cane: Twentysix Dogs Found on Street View

Attenti al Cane: Twentysix Dogs Found on Street View
Lele Buonerba and Laurel Hauge
2019

Have a Nice Day Press
8.5 × 5.5 in.
36 pages
Binding: Single-section pamphlet
Laser inside and cover

Attenti al Cane, Front cover. Cover image is a photo of a dog laying in a doorway beneath the text "Attenti Al Cane twentysix dogs found on street view"

Despite the Ruscha-inflected title, Attenti al Cane has more in common with works by Mishka Henner and Penelope Umbrico. The subtitular twenty-six dogs are indeed found on Google Street View, situating this book within the growing body of art using found images from the internet. Buonerba and Hauge put their own twist on the genre with their collaborative approach and thoughtful layout decisions. The artists, from their respective computers on different continents, virtually walked the streets of Italy and collected the dogs they discovered. If flânerie characterized urban wandering at the dawn of photography, then Attenti al Cane represents a different walking tradition: la passeggiata. Buonerba and Hauge are out for a stroll, to see and be seen – or read, in this case. The artists are absent, but the reader is able to vicariously join their walk.

The book begins with an introductory statement, reflecting on how Google Street View helped bridge the distance between Buonerba and Hauge as they maintained their relationship from Milan and Brooklyn. Emphasizing the collaborative, performative aspect of the book is especially important since the process of trawling Street View for dogs might otherwise seem quite isolating compared to other studio practices. The book is as much about documenting this collaborative performance as the final product. After the foreword, the distorted snippets of street names embedded in the images are the only text.

Attenti al Cane, Spread 3. Composite images of a dog on a cobblestone street with Google Street View text .

The layouts of each spread are varied. In some, single images cross the gutter and bleed off all four edges. Others compose panels like a comic book or simply present single photos with white borders. This flexibility sets the book apart from projects that aggregate found images more instrumentally for conceptual effect. For Buonerba and Hauge, the found images are a generative constraint, a visual challenge to be solved by cropping, arranging and sequencing. Often, the resulting compositions (if not the resolution or focus) are strong even by conventional photographic standards. Nevertheless, the weird artifacts and distortions familiar to any Street View user are a prominent aspect of the book’s aesthetic.

Attenti al Cane, Spread 13. Street View image of a child walking two leashed dogs and carrying a plastic bag. The child's face is blurred.

The subject matter exerts a subtle, but powerful influence on the photographs’ form and content. With dogs come chair legs and people legs, footwear and shopping bags. The point of view is low. There are hardly any horizons. The book is an incidental inventory of paving materials and vernacular architecture. The experience is surprisingly unlike actually using Street View, in large part because the images focus on what is beside the street rather than down the middle. Furthermore, the reader isn’t privy to virtual walking that invisibly connects the images that were chosen for the book.

Attenti al Cane cleverly uses narrative, whereas many books of this sort make meaning through mere accumulation. In one such sequence, the reader watches a dog chase the Google car as it takes the photographs. Elsewhere, characters from earlier in the book reappear, complicating the book’s already-complex chronology. In what order did Google photograph these streets? And when? Does the book’s sequence follow the artists’ virtual walk or was it pieced together later? In this sense, the book does relate to Ruscha’s gas stations, which follow neither chronology nor geography. The reader is left to puzzle out these sorts of conceptual parameters – whether, for example, there are twenty-six images of dogs or twenty-six different dogs in some other number of images (I won’t spoil this for the reader).

Attenti al Cane, Spread 6. Verso and recto show sequential images of a dog chasing after the Google car from which the image was taken. Both photos are partly obscured by Street View text. overlays

Thankfully, the reader is left with bigger questions as well. Buonerba and Hauge interrogate how technology mediates our relationships, simultaneously alienating us and bringing us closer together. Considered alongside the ancient relationship between dogs and people, the newness of these technological anxieties is thrown into sharp relief. Yet, even our oldest companion has been changed by the internet, from the viral popularity of Corgis to an entirely new, meme-ready vocabulary of “doggos” and “puppers.” Attenti al Cane seems to say that nothing is too sacred, too fundamental to be changed by the internet.

Older aspects of the human-dog relationship remain interesting as well. Of the twenty-six dogs, some are leashed, some are behind fences and still others are free. There are purebreds and scruffy mutts. What the dogs have in common is that they are the only subjects with faces. Google has blurred out the features of their owners and passersby to protect peoples’ privacy. Ironically, by excluding dogs as subjects worthy of protection, Street View preserves their agency. Though some are indifferent, the dogs that return the camera’s gaze leave the reader with no doubt about their status as beings.

Attenti al Cane, Spread 16. A composite image of a dog resting in front of a door, tied to the door handle. On the recto, the dog stares directly at the viewer.

In fact, the uncanny affect of the dogs’ gaze is one of many ways that Attenti al Cane demonstrates the power of found photography. Buonerba and Hauge deftly shape compelling compositions from Street View, and show that artists’ books are an important access point for artists engaging with the proliferation of online images. The book operates through narrative and accumulation, creating meaning within each spread and between them. The artists maximize the individual image without losing sight of the sequence. This complex synthesis of disconnected locations and timelines is a fitting expression of their transatlantic relationship.


If you’d like a hard copy of this review, download this PDF to print and fold your own little book.