Math Monahan’s installation Specimen is book art that cannot be ignored.
[ The book is an organism. It lived, spread all over the world and, some would consider, is endangered today. These creatures have a life of their own. They manifest themselves in many forms but where did they come from? If they are animals of paper and text, from what kind of beast did they evolve? This series studies those primordial creatures that became the developed beings colonizing our homes and libraries. By looking at growth patterns, mutations, and morphological similarities we can better understand this animal’s rise in population for so many years, as well as its current decline toward extinction. ]
The images above constitute a mesmerizing series on Monahan’s site. It is as if we are looking at photographs of deep-sea creatures or impressions of fossils or slides of microscopic organisms. The latter impression is reinforced by the petri dishes in which the circular images are framed, but of late, the organisms, shown in the rectangular photos, have escaped the petri dish to occupy an undefined abyss. Like snorkeling or diving for the first time in strange waters, the experience of viewing Specimen is beautiful, exhilarating and a bit scary. The words quoted above and fixed alongside the images are humorous, wistful but still, in the end, a bit scary. The book: evolution or extinction?
Monahan hails from the Master of Fine Arts program at the University of Michigan Ann Arbor, whose library by chance was one of the original five library partners in the Google Library Print Project that began in 2004. In March 2012, Jennifer Howard reported in The Chronicle of Higher Education that Google’s book-scanning project had reached its 20 millionth volume but was slowing down. Even so, at its average rate, Google should have about 25 million books scanned now. As if foreshadowing Monahan’s metaphor literally and using the Google collection like a literary genome project, Harvard’s Steven Pinker, Jean-Baptiste Michel and the Google Books Team “constructed a corpus of digitized texts containing about 4% of all books ever printed [enabling them] … to investigate cultural trends quantitatively”. From this reservoir of digital strands, they plucked out the references to each year between 1875 and 1975 in the books, plotted them and found
The plots had a characteristic shape. For example, “1951” was rarely discussed until the years immediately preceding 1951. Its frequency soared in 1951, remained high for 3 years, and then underwent a rapid decay, dropping by half over the next 15 years. Finally, the plots enter a regime marked by slower forgetting: Collective memory has both a short-term and a long-term component.
But there have been changes. The amplitude of the plots is rising every year: Precise dates are increasingly common. There is also a greater focus on the present. For instance, “1880” declined to half its peak value in 1912, a lag of 32 years. In contrast, “1973” declined to half its peak by 1983, a lag of only 10 years. We are forgetting our past faster with each passing year.
Ironic that. Analysis of the “DNA” extracted from over 5 million specimens of the organism designed to preserve our past tells us that we are forgetting it more quickly year by year.
Curious about his interactions with the book species, I wrote to Math Monahan to ask if we could conduct the “in medias res” experiment: to go to his bookshelf, select a volume from the middle of any shelf, open the volume to its center pages, tell me what is there and answer a set of questions.
- What are the objects immediately on either side of the selected book? As you take the book from its place, what are your physical sensations? How does the book feel to you? As you open to its middle page, what do you hear, smell or see about it or around it?
- Do you recall the circumstances of acquiring the book? What were you doing when you acquired it? Why this book?
- 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?
- 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?
MM: I decided to choose from my “to read” shelf. The book I found in the center felt “right” as soon as I saw it there. Although it was on my “to read” shelf, I decided to read it before replying. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to or not, I think it was the right choice. Anyway, here is my choice. As you can see, the book I’m using has a slightly different layout.
BoB: And what about the books and things around it, and what you felt as took Tree of Codes from the shelf?
MM: To the left stands the book, Folklore and Book Culture by Kevin Hayes. To the right, two wooden boxes stacked, act as a book end/space filler, followed by more books. The larger box on the bottom contains various samples of handmade papers. The smaller box on top contains blank note cards. As I removed the book I felt the unfamiliar squeezing of pages that I was surprised by when I first bought the book. It was caused by the cutouts on each page. They create the different densities that differ from the standard solid-block feel of a book. When I opened the book to its estimated middle page, I remember being very gentle. The layout of the book made the pages delicate lattices that I am very careful to keep intact. The carefulness must have overridden my other senses, because I don’t remember anything else. I thought the book felt “right” when I found it because, as a book artist, I work with the form of the book and the book as an object. That is my main interest. This book is published by Visual Editions, a publishing company that believes “books should be as visually interesting as the stories they tell” (www.visual-editions.com). This idea meshes well with ideas in my own work.
BoB: Now that you’ve read Tree of Codes, you will have noticed how The Street of Crocodiles has pretty much disappeared. Almost but not completely. Are there echoes of that phenomena in your own work?
MM: Yes. Often the content of the books I’m using in my work is irrelevant. I am exploring the book as a physical form. Through folding, braiding, warping or any other alteration, I am revealing the transformative nature of the book. Each one holds different possibilities. My struggle is in convincing the viewer of this. We have a tendency to immediately read text, almost instinctual. Can text be texture? Is there more information contained in a book than words and images?
While a part of my process is (what I have been calling) relieving the book of text, I don’t feel this is an act of violence against any author(s). It is clear in Tree of Codes that the removal of text is an act of love or admiration for the primary story. My admiration is for the object itself. The text will live on in many forms. I am not using rare or one-of-a-kind books here.
BoB: Do you recall the circumstances of buying Tree of Codes? What were you doing when you decided to buy it? What prompted the purchase?
MM: I found it in a Barnes and Noble. I remember being surprised to see it there because it is a sort of unconventional book. I quickly put together that the author, Jonathan Safran Foer, recently had one of his books made into a movie and that could prompt the store to have all his works in stock. Still, I was very pleased to find it. I was introduced to the book about a year earlier by a friend. It was coming home with me that day, no question.
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? The question may have different answers depending on the type of book or your intention on opening the book, so feel free to qualify your answer as you like.
MM: I think my relationship to “the book” changed how I approach books in any context. For better or for worse, I have noticed this change. The phrase, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” comes to mind here. I find myself judging a book not only by its cover but also by its weight, size and shape, the textures of its cover and pages. Even by the fonts used in the body of the text are included in this analysis. Of course I read the summary and printed comments on the back, but these often fall after the book passes the physical tests.
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?
MM: This is where all the information gathered through the process described above come into use. Understanding how paper textures interact with colors and fonts, how negative space in a text block affects how quickly you move through the book, how the lines of text change as you curl and warp the pages; all are now the backdrop to the creation of my own work. Sometimes this raw data is in the forefront of my thoughts while I’m working, while other times it is synthesized into a cloud of intuitive responses. The latter is often what I’m referring to when I say something “feels right”.
BoB: Decades ago, Peter Frank commented that exhibiting artists books behind glass was to confine them ” in some anaerobic chamber”. Unless your “organisms” in Specimen present themselves in the equivalent of a petting zoo, their exhibition requires us to stand at a distance and prompts us to view the book as an object to be regarded rather than “read” in the usual sense.
Your installation Between is another case in point but intriguingly different. There, you have taken two sets of books, opened each book, braided its pages so that it stands open and arranged each set of braided books in a circle spine to spine.
The circle arrangement holds the set together, without adhesives or mechanical apparatus, and the pages slowly unbraid themselves, each book returning to its original form. Although the installations, one in the Penny Stamps Graduate Studio and the other in the Hatcher Graduate library of the University of Michigan, are not under glass or otherwise fenced away from the “reader”, the “reading” or art experience can only occur as the unfolding occurs. And, of course, being in two separate locations, the installations do not allow us to experience them simultaneously. Yet, you intend “the installations [to] form a whole existing between the two spaces”.
So while Specimen is “at a distance” from us in one way, Between is so in another. With Specimen, we are relatively passive viewers. With Between, although we are not reading the unbraiding volumes, we are more active, almost participating. Our “witness” to the unbraiding is a necessary element of the artwork, but is that unbraiding toward forgetfulness and extinction or memory and renewal?
MM: Participation is the point of books. They are meant to be interacted with. That interaction has become a recent focus, especially thinking of library books and other books as they pass through several hands. I can admit, reading a good book leaves its mark on me. But what marks do we leave of books? What are the traces of these intimate interactions? Through time, whole communities are embedded in these artifacts. Find a book from a library or thrift store and try to imagine everyone that has ever handled that specific edition. Can you feel them around you? I aim to reveal that community.
BoB: One last question. Between forgetfulness and extinction, on the one hand, and memory and renewal, on the other, where would you bookmark us and the book?
MM: Whether book sales are up or down, it’s irrelevant. Even if the extinction of books never happens, the fact that text CAN be read digitally opens the book to possibilities beyond text, similar to (in my opinion) what happened to painting with the invention of photography. Artists are still working in representation, even hyperrealism, but the rapid expanse of painting and thought behind what a painting is – that is the direction that I’d like to see our interaction with books move in.
- Czeck, Jessica. “Between: Beautifully Braided Books”, Visual News, 10 March 2013, accessed 30 January 2014: http://www.visualnews.com/2013/03/10/between-beautifully-braided-books/.
- Eukel, Jennie. “Artist Math Monahan Turns Books Into Works of Intricate Beauty”, Modern Midwest, 16 April 2013, accessed 30 January 2014: http://modernmidwest.com/things/artist-math-monahan-turns-books-into-works-of-intricate-beauty.
- Klima, Stefan. Artists Books: A Critical Survey of the Literature. New York: Granary Books, 1998, p.67, citing Jacqueline Brody, “Peter Frank: A Case for Marginal Collectors”, Print Collector’s Newsletter, IX, no. 2, March-April 1978, p. 44.
- Michel, Jean-Baptiste et al. “Quantitative Analysis of Culture Using Millions of Digitized Books”, Science, 14 January 2011, Vol. 331, no. 6014, pp. 176-182, accessed 19 September 2013: DOI: 10.1126/science.1199644.