Books On Books Collection – Klaus Detjen

Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira le Hasard – Ein Würfelwurf niemals tilgt den Zufall (1995)


Un Coup de Dés jamais n’abolira le Hasard: Poème – Ein Würfelwurf niemals tilgt den Zufall: Ein Gedicht (1995)

Klaus Detjen

Casebound, unopened binding. H300 x W255 mm, 85 pages. Acquired from Stefan Schuelke Fine Books, 30 June 2020. Photos: Books On Books Collection.

This work strikes a curious chord with two exhibitions from 2016 and 2018 — “Reading as Art” at the Bury Art Museum and “The Art of Reading” at the Museum Meermanno, respectively. The works in both exhibitions not only challenged notions of the book and ways of reading but posed the act of making as a form of reading and the act of reading as a form of making. By prefacing this French-German edition of Un Coup de Dés with a book-arts-driven “transcreation”, Klaus Detjen demonstrates that the act of making also implies the act of translating. Typographer, designer, scholar and recipient of the Leipzig Gutenberg Prize for 2017, Detjen has used color, shape, line and binding here as his tools of translation and interpretation.

To use the term “transcreation” here may be taking liberties with Haroldo de Campos’s portmanteau for the idea of “translation as recreation”, or translating with creativity and therefore making “translation-art”. The term and definition perhaps better describe works such as those shown in The New Concrete: Visual Poetry in the 21st Century edited by Victoria Bean and Chris McCabe. But then De Campos and his brother, Augusto, singled out Un Coup de Dés as one of the cornerstones (along with Ezra Pound, James Joyce and e.e. cummings) for their group Noigrandres, and Mallarmé’s poem certainly fits the bill of the ideal target of transcreation:

The more intricate the text is the more seducing it is to “recreate” it. Of course in a translation of this type, not only the signified but also the sign itself is translated, that is, the sign’s tangible self, its very materiality (sonorous properties, graphical-visual properties…. Haroldo de Campos, “Translation as Creation and Criticism”, p. 315.

This notoriously difficult poem to translate (or even comprehend) with its cascade of metaphors and symbols (the central ones being a shipwreck and a constellation) appears three times in Detjen’s volume: first, in French with Detjen’s interpretive design, then in French and finally in German. All three instances follow the typography and layout of the first book edition of the poem as published in 1914 by Gallimard. Detjen’s own treatment of the poem very much focuses on the edition’s graphical-visual properties.

In that edition, the rhythm and position of the lines, the font and all the font sizes are precisely specified. Nine typographical motifs structure the poem. They are additionally highlighted in the front part of our book with colors, the meaning of which will be discussed later. Font sizes, styles (roman or italics) and the colors of the motifs used are as follows: First double-page spread: UN COUP DE DÉS, 11.25 mm, blue-violet / Second DS: QUAND BIEN MEME, 3.5 mm, cyan-blue / Third DS: que, 3.5 mm, green / Sixth DS: COMME SI, 5.25 mm, magenta; Une insinuation, 3.5 mm, yellow / Eighth DS 8: SI, 5.25 mm, magenta red / Ninth DS: C’ÉTAIT, 4.5 mm, orange red; autrement qu’hallucination, 2.5 mm, yellow; issu stellaire, 2.5 mm yellow. Klaus Detjen, “Zum Gestaltung”, p.81 (my translation).

The colored linear frames, threads and markings give the nine typographical motifs additional structuring. Detjen intends them to highlight the reading order to guide the reader through the text like a score. Detjen’s later discussion of their meaning, however, focuses mainly on les blancs, the white space around the text of the poem. Taking Mallarmé at his word in the poem’s foreword, Detjen seizes on the whiteness of the surrounding space and runs to the prismatic metaphor that the spectrum of colors is simply the decomposition of white light. Detjen also notes that the unorthodox Rien/Nichts printed on the volume’s opening page alludes to the expanse of blank space enclosing the lines of text and, in support, quotes from Mallarmé’s “Crisis of Verse”:

Everything is suspended, an arrangement of fragments with alternations and confrontations, adding up to a total rhythm, which would be the poem stilled, in the blanks; … Mallarmé, “Crisis of Verse”, p. 209.

From all this, Detjen avers that it is

as if Mallarmé did not want to have his poem depicted, that is, printed, but perhaps only thought or, at best, whispered. Or did the author see the poem printed in white on white paper? Detjen, “Zum Gestaltung”, p. 82 (my translation).

Following that line of thought, Detjen switched from Mallarmé’s preferred classical serif typeface to News Gothic Bold after experimentation showed that sans serif enabled him to print legibly in flat white on white paper. Confirming his primary focus on the expanse of blank whiteness, Detjen even concludes his afterword by quoting Jorge Luis Borges on Mallarmé:

The impersonal color white itself — is it not utterly Mallarmé? Borges, “Narrative Art and Magic”, p. 79.

In his heavy emphasis on les blancs, Detjen ends up not doing justice to other more subtle aspects of his design artistry. Before he comes to the poem’s expanse of whiteness, note how the opening page of Rien/Nichts follows the black pastedowns and endpapers — the absence of light contrasting as much with the cover’s pure white as with the poem’s blank spaces.

Note how the colors to come in his interpretive version appear in dice shapes arranged on the front and back white covers to suggest the faces of a pair of dice. The whole volume becomes ein Würfelwurf, un coup de dés, a throw of the dice, which echoes Mallarmé’s obsession with le Livre — that work that everything in the world comes to be.

More subtly, Detjen combines the uncut folios with the colored shapes and markings to suggest “rigging” for the foundering ship and a “mapping” for the constellation. The turning uncut folios become billowing sails or rising and falling waves, across which the rigging cuts and the constellation shines.

Detjen’s visual and physical “transcreation” underscores why the French and German translations are not side by side, page for page. How could they be given the way the poem’s words work with the type, the page, the double-page spread and folios? All of which meets de Campos’s definition of the ideal target for transcreation — where the work’s signified, sign and materiality are intricately bound to one another.

In Detjen’s version preceding the French and German versions, the act of translation and interpretation meets the act of creating a work of art.

Further Reading

Bean, Victoria, and Chris McCabe, eds. The New Concrete: Visual Poetry in the 21st Century (London: Hayward Publishing, 2015).

Borges, Jorge Luis. “Narrative Art and Magic” [1932]. Trans. Suzanne Jill Levine; ed. Eliot Weinberger. In Selected Non-Fictions (New York: Penguin Books, 1999), pp. 75-82.

Campos, Haroldo de. “Translation as Creation and Criticism” [1963]. Trans. Diana Gibson and Haroldo de Campos. In A. S. Bessa and O. Cisneros, eds., Novas: Selected Writings (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2007), pp. 312-326.

Cisneros, Odile. “From Isomorphism to Cannibalism: The Evolution of Haroldo de Campos’s Translation Concepts“, Érudit: At the crossroads of translating and writing: Poetics and experiments, Volume 25, Number 2, 2012, pp.15-44. Posted 8 October 2013. Accessed 22 August 2020.

Jaruga, Rodolfo. “Ezra Pound’s Arrival in Brazil“, Make It New: The Ezra Pound Society Magazine, Volume 4.1-2, September 2017. Accessed 22 August 2020.

Mallarmé, Stéphane. “Crisis of Verse” [1897]. Trans. Barbara Johnson. In Divagations (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009), pp. 201-11.

Paola, Modesta de. “Translation in Visual Arts”, Interartive, August 2013. Accessed 22 August 2020.

Bookmarking Book Art – “The New Concrete: Visual Poetry in the 21st Century”

The New Concrete: Visual Poetry in the 21st Century is a testament on where this art made of letters has been and where it goes. We have put a sharp focus on the word ‘new’ in our title, exploring how image manipulation, cut and paste, digital text and the internet have all influenced work in this area. One of the most exciting strands can be seen in the work of James Hoff and Eric Zboya who use algorithms and viruses to form work in which text is in the back – rather than foreground; the ghost of the machine of visual poetics. This isn’t a book that could have been made through simply surfing the web. We asked all 106 contributors to suggest names of poets or artists that we should consider for the book. Visual poets spiralled into more visual poets. We have looked at well over 500 possible candidates. Enjoy the knowledge with us.

Victoria Bean & Chris McCabe, editors

Among the Books On Books favorites included in this volume are Sam Winston, Julie Johnstone, Ian Hamilton Finlay and Vito Acconci.


For a related MoMA exhibition of artists engaged in the material use of letters, words and language (Ecstatic Alphabets, Heaps of Language), click here.

Bookmarking Book Art – The Art of Reading in a “Post-Text Future”

Did you read on New York Times Interactive how text is succumbing to the sound and blurry of podcasts, YouTube, talking assistants, Netflix, face-reading phones, Instagram and augmented reality? We are passing through an internet portal turning our evolution from orality to literacy in on itself — where “text recedes to the background, and sounds and images become the universal language”.

Welcome to the post-text future.

The seemingly unintentional irony of delivering the welcome by text rather than by podcast or tweeted looping video meme undermines the hyperventilation a bit. But we should not roll our eyes and move on. The NYTI journalists are reminding us to pay attention.

Our literacy has always been multimodal (read and hear the orality in the opening text of Genesis in the The Douay Version). With each new medium it rapidly becomes more multimodal.  In Ringing the Changes on “The End of Books”, there’s the tongue-in-cheek evidence from 1894.

“The End of Books”, Scribner’s Magazine (August 1894)
Louis Octave Uzanne

In Literacies, Mary Kalantzis and Bill Cope at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, trace its occurrence back to the mid-twentieth century age of radio and television.  And not that long ago (2012), Amazon released Immersion Reading, enabling audio in sync with ebook reading.Leaving aside the apocalyptic speculation on the fate of letters, we should take the point: our literacies are entangled and evolve together. Putting the more scholarly view of differences between orality and text alongside the post-text Futurists’ observations about tweets, memes and other social media, we can see why we would benefit from closer attention to that entanglement and evolution.

Here is Walter J. Ong:

Oral folk prefer, especially in formal discourse, not the soldier, but the brave soldier; not the princess, but the beautiful princess; not the oak, but the sturdy oak. Oral expression thus carries a load of epithets and other formulary baggage which high literacy rejects as cumbersome and tiresomely redundant because of its aggregative weight … (Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. London: Methuen, 1982, pp.31, 37-49).

Here is the post-text future:

An information system dominated by pictures and sounds prizes emotion over rationality. It’s a world where slogans and memes have more sticking power than arguments. — Farhad Manjoo

Here is Ong:

Writing fosters abstractions that disengage knowledge from the arena where human beings struggle with one another. It separates the knower from the known. By keeping knowledge embedded in the human lifeworld, orality situates knowledge within a context of struggle.

Here is the post-text future:

Doyle Canning, who wrote a book on using memes for political movements and co-founded the Center for Story-Based Strategy, said people have now realized memes are replacing nuanced political debate.

“People in 2016 declined to take seriously the impact of the memes and clung to this narrative that rational policy discourse would triumph, … And it didn’t.”

“Now politics,” she said, is just “a battle of the memes.” Nellie Bowles

These comparisons/contrasts underscore Kalantzis’ and Cope’s educational earnestness about the importance of teaching to these entangled and evolving literacies as perhaps the only systematic means we have of offering children social equity and a chance at social equality. Imbuing their literacies with critical thinking skills is paramount. The art of living depends on the art of reading.

At the Museum Meermanno in The Hague, you can step into this increasingly busy intersection of literacies at an exhibition called The Art of Reading.  The exhibition is divided into six rooms labeled “Reading is Turning the Page”, “Reading is Seeing”, Reading is Touching”, “Reading is Remembering”, “Reading is Concentrating” and “Reading is Reacting”. Unusually the art is not simply on display. Touching is allowed. Paul van Capelleveen, one of the curators organizing the show, insisted that each work be touchable. As a curator at the Dutch national library and advisor to the Museum Meermanno (The House of the Book), he felt strongly that the challenges of multimodal literacy cannot be understood “under glass”.

2nd Hand Reading (2014)
William Kentridge

Physicality or the haptic is an affordance that print literacy lords over digital literacy. We know where we are in a print book because we can feel as well as see where we are. Welcome then to the first room “Reading is Turning the Page”, where William Kentridge turns the tables on that claim. As you watch the “film of the book” across the room, you can try your hand at flipping the pages of the physical copy like a flipbook to mimic the video. Look closely though. The page numbers are not sequential.

2nd Hand Reading (2014)
Page 2388 then 2390?

And the entries are not in alphabetical order.

2nd Hand Reading (2014)
“Inquest” before “Heterogenesis”?

When the order of text, numerals, narrative and images collide, we are left with the literacy of art — be it digital or physical. Which brings you to the next room: “Reading is Touching”.

The Lost Men Project (2006)
Paul Emmanuel
The Lost Men Project (2006)
Paul Emmanuel

The names of South African soldiers, both black and white, killed in the First World War, are set in hot metal type then impressed without ink on flesh. Photographed and filmed, the names fade away. In the exhibition, a voice from the touchscreen device repeats, “Touch me, touch me”. Each touch upon the screen — on the skin before you —  advances the work running as a video on the touchscreen. Touching is the only way to read all of the names of the dead as they fade away. This work is but one of several that make up The Lost Men Project

Like a Pearl in My Hand (2017)
Carina Hesper

In this room of touch, you move from sorrow to sorrow. Glass and ink do not separate you from them very much.

Two pages from Like a Pearl in My Hand

To read the pages of Like a Pearl in My Hand, you must rest your hands on them then lift your hands away.

The face revealed on each page is the face of a blind or visually impaired child in a Chinese orphanage. As you read the page, the face fades into blackness.

The artist’s book is associated with Bethel China, a charity for the visually impaired. Click on the image above to visit the charity’s site.

The next room is “Reading is Seeing”.

Were the curators being tone deaf with this juxtaposition?  No, it is the bluntness and earnestness of recognition that literacies and our sensibilities are jumbled up.  The literacy of art does that. It can move us from somberness to whimsy and back. The first work in this room of sight is a children’s flashlight (or torch) book; the next, a device for the visually impaired; the next, an augmented reality app on iPads.

Hide & Eek! (2013)
Rebecca Sutherland
OrCam MyEye 2.0 (2017)
Amnon Shashua and Ziv Aviram
An artificial vision device with a lightweight smart camera that instantly reads text aloud –in this case, a poem by Gerrit Achterberg (Kinderangst or Childhood Fear).

The curators deftly paced the impact of these rooms. Something from the one before lingers with you in the next, or something in the next reminds you of the one before.

“Reading is Remembering” is the next room. Here the artists play with re-membering text vs dis-membering text, recalling vs forgetting, excavating vs filling in, deconstructing to reconstruct, destroying to create.

A Excavation, A Reading (2013)
Rick Myers

Rick Myers was commissioned by the Onassis Cultural Center to commemorate the Greek poet Constantine Cavafy. The work he proposed required permission to obtain Pentelic marble fragments (quarrying is restricted for the purpose of restoring the Acropolis) and grinding them into dust. He then sourced four different translations of Cavafy’s poem “Before the Statue of Endymion”, arranged a reading and recording of each, and, for each, cut a stencil. The chronologically first translation’s stencil was positioned on stretched plastic film suspended over speakers.  The marble dust was sifted onto the black plastic through the stencil, leaving the legible white text on the black background with which the video starts after the credits above. As the recording of the chronologically second translation plays, the sound’s vibration obliterates the  marble dust words of the first translation. Then comes the turn of the second stenciled translation to be obliterated by the third’s recorded reading. And so on.

An instant from “An Excavation, A Reading” (2013)
Rick Myers

Here, then, is a work of art that simultaneously endorses and refutes the premise that text recedes in favor of some new universal language of sound and image. It is a textual palimpsest in motion where sound dissipates the text of the past, making way for the next version of the text to be dissipated by the sound of the third and the text of the third to be dissipated by the sound of the fourth. A moment of the work is captured in Victoria Bean and Chris McCabe’s The New Concrete (see below). The work runs a little over three minutes, excerpts can be found here, but the experience under the exhibition room’s banner provides an unsurpassable frame for the work.

An Excavation, A Reading (2013)
Rick Myers
From The New Concrete: Visual Poetry in the 21st Century, Edited by Victoria Bean and Chris McCabe. London: Hayward Publishing, 2015

Inspired by The Royal Road Test by Ed Ruscha, Mason Williams and Patrick Blackwell (the crew that filmed a Royal typewriter being thrown out of a Buick travelling at 90mph), Simon Morris had seventy-eight students cut out all of the words from Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams.  On Sunday, June 1st, 2003, he “threw the words out of the window of a Renault Clio Sport on Redbridge Road, Crossways, Dorset, traveling at a speed of 90mph, approximately 122 miles southwest of Freud’s psychoanalytical couch in London. The action freed the words from the structural unity of Freud’s text as it subjected them to an ‘aleatory moment’ – a seemingly random act of utter madness.” The work on display consists of a Ruscha-like book (right down to the plastic spiral binding) and a film of the epic literary littering.

If you are expecting the next room — “Reading is Concentrating” — to help you gather any scattered thoughts or words, think again.

Marinus van Dijke’s work draws your eye and ear first. Chickens clucking and strutting onscreen, superimposed small white circles the size of a chicken’s eye jerking and gliding across the screen, a sheet of paper being laid over the screen (ah, it’s a screen within a screen), and then a hand with pen enters the frame, picks a circle and, trying to track it, leaves a scrawl on the paper.

Eye (2013)
Marinus van Dijke

Van Dijke’s work echoes Jan Dibbets’ Robin Redbreast’s Territory: Sculpture 1969, April — June, which Germano Celant included in his Book as Artwork show in 1973. Like the deliberate echo of Morris/Ruscha, this chance echo of Van Dijke/Dibbets recalls the grounding of  contemporary textual and book art in the conceptualism of the 1960s/70s.

Robin Redbreast’s Territory: Sculpture 1969, April — June (1970)
Jan Dibbets

Dibbets documented the flight patterns of this highly territorial bird and presented that in a book as a conceptualization of an “as if” sculpture drawn in space.

Robin Redbreast’s Territory: Sculpture 1969, April — June (1970)
Jan Dibbets

There was admittedly some “artistic license” in Dibbets’ documentation — somewhat the same as when Van Dijke’s tracing pen cannot keep up with the peripatetic circles, which are projections of the chickens’ eye movements as they hunt for food.

“Reading is Reacting” is the last room. Here it seems that printed text comes out on top. Over in one corner is a Dutch encyclopedia, stacked vertically four feet high.

In the opposite corner, on shelves from floor to ceiling, is the Dutch version of Michael Mandiberg’s Print Wikipedia. The paperbacks scattered on the display table began their textual lives online. 

Print Wikipedia (Dutch edition, 2016)
Michael Mandiberg
Jack
Tweetbundel (2015)
Jan Dirk van der Burg
Unsolicited autobiography created from the subject’s Twitter feed.

Although printed text seems to be having the last word, attend to the curators’ last words on your way out:

Reading and writing have become increasingly open arenas: there are more readers than ever before, there are more books and publication outlets, which can reach vast readerships thanks to the internet. Readers feel more empowered and are able to combine or alter texts found online. Readers become writers. Online texts have therefore come to resemble oral literature, in that they are constantly changing and being passed on from one person to another, retold — sometimes differently. They are unstable and at the same time highly accessible.

Text in books appear to be fixed, but annotations and deletions change the printed text, just as editorial changes alter a page on the internet…. Even so, printed texts are in principle less changeable than those posted online. This makes them appear inviolable and irrefutable. Some people fear that young people believe everything they read on the internet. That is nothing new. Philosophers from Socrates to Locke thought that written or printed texts would be accepted as the absolute truth.

Where do we stand today? … How reading will develop in the future is unclear, but one thing is sure: connection and interaction will be key to that development.

Leaving The Art of Reading and thinking again about a post-text future, you can be sure of one other thing: the art of living will still depend on the art of reading.