… in medias res … in the midst of things … Nel mezzo del caminn di nostra vita …
I asked Barbara Tetenbaum if we could base this interview on her selection of a book she owns and may or may not have read. Perhaps sounding like a card magician, I instructed:
Go to any row or stack of books (or file folder of books; yes, ebooks would count) in your home or workplace. Select the title that is in the middle. Please note the author, title, year of publication, publisher and ISBN, if available. Now, turn to the middle of the title selected and choose any element (paragraph, image, footnote and sentence footnoted, bit of dialogue, etc.). Please note the page number or other means of identifying the element’s location.
And here is the result of this “deliberated” selection of the book, of this bit of ordered randomness or random order in finding our point of departure for our interview.
Collaborative Form: Studies in the Relations of the Arts by Thomas Jensen Hines, 1991. Kent State University Press, ISBN 0-87338-417-2, p. 84.
BoB: Where was Hines’ book when you selected it? What are the objects immediately on either side of the book when it’s on the shelf? As you take the book from its place, what are your physical sensations? As you open it to its midpoint, what do you hear, smell or see about it or around it?
BT: I took the book from my living room, the main bookshelf that houses my main books-about-art library. I chose the middle shelf and the middle book.
Here are the first four books to the left of the book in contiguous order:
Buchgestaltung by Albert Kapr; Schrift und Schreiben by Hildegard Korger; Zweite Enzyklopaedie von Tlön catalog produced by Peter Malutzki and Ines V. Ketelhodt; Livres d’Artistes/Livres-Objets (Artist Books/Book Objects) catalog organized by NRA Shakespeare International.
Here are the first four books to the right in contiguous order:
Deep Storage: Collecting, Storing and Archiving in Art edited by Ingrid Schaffner, Matthias Winzen et al.; Paper Before Print;The History and Impact of Paper in the Islamic World by Jonathan Bloom; By His Own Labor: The Biography of Dard Hunter by Cathleen Baker; Pass Auf! Hier Kommt Grosz: Bilder Rhythmen und Gesange 1915-1918 by W. Herzfelde and H. Marquardt.
When I took the book out, I had these feelings: trepidation - on what was inside; pride – that I had found it years ago and knew to acquire it; charm – that it so reflects what I’m working on at the moment; slight disgust – at its ugly dust jacket; and curiosity – to read and discover what I had been missing all these years since purchasing it.
The book smelled academic. Like a book that is published for a very narrow audience and is rarely opened, but produced with a certain level of quality that is better than a mass-market paperback for instance.
And to say something about the adjacent books on the shelf: I was surprised how many of them had German content! These books represent people I have met, places I’ve been. For instance, the Hildegard Korger book was a gift from her after I spent a semester in Leipzig. She had been so very suspicious of me as an American, so shortly after the Wall had come down, very odd to speak with, but in the end she saw that I was trying to do something positive for the school and the students. She gave me this book and told me we could say “Du”. It was an important moment for me. And Peter and Ines’s encyclopedia is one of my favorite projects of the last decade or so. I admire them so much and can’t begin to imagine what it takes to make the work they make. I know them well, but they are super heroes for me. That book on paper is smart and continues to prove that the development of book culture is primarily a political process.
BoB: You say you had forgotten you bought this book. Having taken it from its place, have you recalled the circumstances of the book’s purchase? What were you doing when you decided to buy it? What prompted the purchase?
BT: I bought it possibly 10 years ago. I found it in Powell’s “Literary Criticism” section, which is a place I go to when I am not being productive in the studio and feel like reading some smart book will inspire me to be a better/smarter artist. I often buy books in this way that I don’t get around to reading. Or maybe I read a bit and find that it actually triggers an idea that was sitting dormant. In this case, I think it did. I was working a lot between music and visual books then. I was interested in the languages that these arts have developed individually and how these languages can be learned and used by other disciplines. This book for me is a bit dry as I like books that get to the point without exploring example after example. I’m often bored by the examples used by these theoreticians and would prefer them to get to the point! (that’s me in general).
BoB: As an artist whose work has an intimate relationship to “the book,” could you describe the effect this has on you when you are reading books in general?
BT: Reading/handling books can lead to many possible reactions! First off, I’m very aware of their physical body: the weight in my hands, the feel of the cover, of the paper, how well the book opens and the pages ‘drape’, the smell to a certain extent. I notice if the layout is of good quality, that the text is easy to read for my eyes, that this is an object that will help me spend time with its contents and not annoy me. I think we are all this way, though maybe not so conscious. Because I am both a book artist and a teacher, I’m always noticing/looking for books that add to the discussion about the dynamic nature of the book. So I may become interested in a book because it shows something that I want my students to think about, or that will inspire me to utilize a particular ‘move’ in a future project. So books themselves contain the evidence/proof of the vitality of the book structure and book organization.
I’m also very interested in the presumed ‘authority’ that books convey. I think this was my opening into the book arts back in 1979: to challenge this presumption. I still am!
BoB: Turning the question on its head, when the act of creating a work rather than the act of reading is in flight, how do books feed your working process?
BT: When I’m working on a project, books are everywhere, on all surfaces. [In the] photo of my new kittens hanging out on my kitchen table [you can] see all the books that I was referencing as I worked this week on a new quick Cather project (creating a visual score for My Ántonia). Books are either direct source material, or they are reminders of a standard of design, or palette of colors, or format, or mix of materials, etc., that I want to influence this particular project. Buzz Spector gave an interesting talk a year or so ago on the artist’s library relationship to their studio practice. I like this image of the fluid interaction between the studio and the library.
BoB: As might be expected with a university press book, the Hines text is dry, but it came to life a bit for me when I noticed how it touches on two key themes in your life and work. In particular, the collaborative form in which two or more artists work together on a joint creation and the collaborative form in which an artist works the elements of two or more arts into a solo creation. Now you have taken this several steps beyond what Hines writes of. Not only do you work in mixed media but you collaborate with contemporaries (like Julie Chen) and with past authors and artists (like Willa Cather).
Most often we think of the literary or pictorial artist as creating in solitude. If asked for outstanding examples of artistic collaboration, don’t we most often turn to music? Picking one or more of your contemporary collaborations, can you tell me how that kind of collaboration works with what so many think of as the solitary creative process?
BT: Hmmm….’solitary creative process’ is definitely an aspect of being an artist and for me personally it is the most bizarre part of my time making work. I am a fairly social being and my imagination is mostly ignited by the world/ideas/people around me. But yes, there are those times when it’s just your own struggle to get through the place you’ve brought yourself to. I love rereading Georges Perec’s essay “The Parachute Jump” just to be reminded of the absolute fear that one can experience in the studio, not knowing where to go, but knowing that you brought yourself to this point and the only thing you can do is throw yourself into the void.
Maybe collaboration for me is to partly feel the impetus from outside myself. So this is an energy thing. I am really great at answering to the needs of others. If I collaborate, then there’s another person to help drive the projects. Otherwise I can spin in on my projects for a long time.
I have a highly reactive mind. So even having a very brief interaction with another artist can trigger a direction to take. So to sum up this part of the question: collaboration is a way to get outside of myself and bring impetus into moments of fear and stagnation.
But the other side of collaboration, the bringing together of otherwise distinct, separate disciplines, is something I must thrive off of. I have always loved collage. Max Ernst said that there’s a spark that comes from bringing together seemingly unrelated things. So collaboration contains a lot of potential ‘sparking’! I like to create things that show something new to the world. Collaboration offers a means to discover new territory. A Reed College professor brought her literature class to see my Cather installation last year, and we also looked at the book project I’d just finished. She said that having an artist show a way of seeing a novel opened up otherwise uncharted ways of looking at a piece of literature. Literary scholars have long discussed “My Ántonia”, but here was new information. So this aspect of working outside, but slightly parallel to one’s discipline, can be exciting.
A third reason I like to collaborate with certain people is because I admire them so much, that this is the closest way I can get to walking in their shoes. I’m not normally a collaborator who is all about showing MY imagery in the work, but rather one who is always thinking “What would Julie do?” These questions help me work in ways that I don’t usually. And maybe collaborating with a dead author is the ultimate homage and selfish way to make a connection…??!!! I only say that, but don’t think this was my impetus for making work with Cather’s text, whom I had never read before then.
BoB: You have described how you listened for days to Willa Cather’s work being read aloud when preparing for Mining My Ántonia. And Ute Schneider in her essay “Turning the Page” writes of the “sound world” of your work Black Ice and Rain. And you mentioned that when you bought Collaborative Form you were “working a lot between music and visual books.” How important is sound to your work? What do you hear as the work progresses? Or when it is finished, what do you hear and hope your audience hears when experiencing the work?
BT: … I never thought about this, but there is definitely a rhythm to my books (well, anyone’s books, really). I know intuitively when this rhythm is ‘right’. We know what it means to sit through a symphony, or a sonata, or a rock song. We know that there will be certain refrains, changes in texture, returning themes. I think we all make books with this kind of sense. I can’t say that there’s any real sound going through my head, but its more knowing that something is right. Not just based on aesthetics, but more on rhythm.
I did teach a class in NYC a few years ago in which we examined musical notation as inspiration for mark-making, and looked at musical form as inspiration for the organization of the parts of the book, so I definitely am in tune (sorry) with this other discipline. And I am a musician, too.
BoB: As you described taking Hines’ Collaborative Form from the shelf, you spoke of the “drape” of the page, the weight in your “hands,” and the “feel” of the cover and paper. That strange but apt word “haptic” (from the Greek ἅπτω = ‘I fasten onto, I touch’) comes to mind. It often comes up in critiques of the digital revolution we have been, and are, living. The digital revolution challenges almost everything physical around us – especially the book. You are something of a “biblioclast,” too, in your challenging “the presumed ‘authority’ that books convey,” no? Many of the digerati, the “born digital first” or the “born-again” digital first are proclaiming that the social network effect and the inevitable demise of print on paper mark a fundamental challenge to the authority of the book and its form. Is that digital challenge to the book’s authority different from what you have in mind?
BT: I think my journey with the book, being at first iconoclastic, could be explained as a way of making friends/healing a wound from childhood. I grew up with intelligent scientific parents who luckily loved music and art. I was kind of the black sheep, the one who didn’t get the good grades, who smoked pot, ran with the wild crowd, got in trouble. My siblings were achievers. My brother got perfect scores on 2 of his SATs and went to M.I.T. So the book and text and school-learning became an easy target for my early youthful endeavors. What I didn’t expect was that I would do a 180 degree turn and become so enamored of books and the printed word, and have become fairly missionary about the future-of-the-book. I have been inspired and influenced by Gary Frost who points to the fact that learning IS a haptic phenomenon. When we remove the physicality of knowledge, we are in danger of losing levels of understanding. Also, I am worried about the survival of so much digital information. Paper, even acidic paper, can still survive wars, floods, fires, neglect, political change. So I’ve become pretty militant about the survival of the paper-based book. It is still the most accessible object for the widest amount of readers.
BoB: The kittens in your photo suggest a world “a-borning” in your life. On what will you fasten or touch next in your art?
BT: Ahhh, the kittens. It’s just nice to come home to these living creatures who are so interactive and of course very very cute. They won’t be the subject of my art, but rather a distraction from the studio.
Like the conversation that Willa Cather relates to begin My Ántonia, this one concludes too soon for me. By some ordered randomness — as in pulling the book that happens to rest in the middle of the shelf and finding our way from it to the things around us — I will find myself in Portland or in a gallery somewhere and suddenly hear that generosity of spirit, and our conversation will resume.
Further reading and listening relating to Barbara Tetenbaum and her art:
Donaghy, Michael. “Black Ice and Rain.” [Read by the late poet, the poem incorporated in Tetenbaum's limited edition artwork Black Ice and Rain.]
Schneider, Ute. “Turning the Page,” Half-Life: 25 Years of Books. Tetenbaum, Barbara, and Triangular Press. 2005. Triangular Press. Portland, OR.
Tetenbaum, Barbara. A Close Read: The Cather Projects. Triangular Press. Portland, Oregon. 2012.