Each letter of the Spanish alphabet is printed in sans serif across a full page to create a grid-like or plaid-like pattern. All letters are printed once in black on white paper and twice in white on black paper; with sheets facing one another. For the English-speaking reader, that’s a bonus of two pages for the ñ.
Held at normal reading length, the double-page spreads do have a plaid effect, but inspected closely, the effect becomes that of wire mesh from which the letters leap out from the less tightly woven spots.
Unsurprisingly the plaids are as distinct from, and similar to, one another as letter shapes are. Sometimes, as with the letter b, an illusion of three dimensionality takes hold.
The most surprising — though they should not be — are the letters i and l. With no crossbar, bowl or curve, they cannot create a plaid pattern. Rather, their black on white, white on black patterns look like barcodes.
Gubbins One of the founding members of the Foro de Escritores (www.fde.cl) Chilean version of Bob Cobbing’s Writers Forum in London, and noted figure in the avant-garde poetry scene in Latin America. Gubbins has collaborated with the American poet and artist John M. Bennett, in whose honor
Some visual artists call this kind of work a “tapuscript“. Some throw it together under the heading of language art or concrete or visual poetry. Karl Kempton prefers the term “visual text art” over any other. Conceding the term to cover the broad genre, works like Alfabeto that cover the entire alphabet in sequence — or even play with its sequence — might deserve the sub generic term “visual alphabet art”. Kempton himself, Roberto de Vicq de Cumptich, Raffaella della Olga, Sharon Werner & Sharon Forss — as well as many of the artists in Victoria Bean and Chris McCabe’s anthology and those in Philip Davenport’s — surely provide a sufficient number of examples.
The Black Page Catalogue(2010) Coxwold, UK: Printed by Graham Moss (Incline Press) for The Laurence Sterne Trust. Contains 73 numbered leaves in a matte black card box (H235 x W168 mm). The leaves are glossy cards (210 x 148 mm) on which contributed texts and illustrations (chiefly colour) are printed; the reverse of each provides the contributor’s comments on the text or illustration and the “page” number. Also enclosed are a single-sheet folded pamphlet (“Printing the Black Page” by Graham Moss, Incline Press) and two cards, one of which is the invitation to the exhibition inspired by the ‘black page’, p. 73 of the first edition of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, held at Shandy Hall, Coxwold, North Yorkshire, 5 Sept.-31 Oct. 2009, and the other, sealed in an envelope, being the index of the contributors and their page numbers. Photos: Books On Books Collection.
Collectors come up with the most ingenious reasons for acquiring things. In this case — along with astrological, numerological and other rational rationale — Rebecca Romney’s reminder that The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman is one of the earlier instances of book art led inevitably to my acquiring Shandy Hall’s The Black Page Catalogue. But it took time.
Several months after enjoying the Romney essay, I met Brian Dettmer in January 2015 by happenstance at a book art exhibition in New Haven, CT. As we chatted about past inspirations of book art, Tristram Shandy came up, so he told me of an upcoming event called “Turn the Page” in Norwich, UK, where I could more easily see some of his work — and one in particular having to do with Tristram Shandy. So in May 2015, I went.
Tristram Shandy (2014) Brian Dettmer Carved and varnished, two copies of the 2005 Folio Society edition of Tristram Shandy. H230 x W190 mm Commissioned by The Laurence Sterne Trust, Coxwold, UK. Photos: Books On Books Collection.
The marbled page, an “emblem of my work”, p. 169. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759) by Laurence Sterne Illustrated with wood engravings by John Lawrence. Set in ‘Monotype’ Plantin, printed by Cambridge University Press on Caxton Wove Paper. New York: Folio Society, 2005.
So a year passed. Another visit to “Turn the Page” was made. And as I was leaving, lo, a sign and small display came unto me:
Only a negligent collector would ignore such clear signs.
Parson-Yoricks-to-be can select their own favorites here.
Emblem of My Work (2013)
Emblem of My Work (2013) Coxwold, UK: The Laurence Sterne Trust. Consists of a 24-page booklet and 170 numbered cards in a hinged blue paper-covered box (H160 x W105 x D60 mm. The leaves of this catalogue are bright white cards (152 x 92 mm) on which the artwork is printed; the reverse of each provides the “page” number and the contributor’s comments on the art. The booklet provides alphabetical and numerically ordered indexes listing the contributors and their page numbers. Edition of 225, of which this is #79. Acquired from Shandy Hall, 1 October 2019. Photos: Books On Books Collection.
Volume III of Sterne’s work was the first to be handled by a publisher. Presumably the famous success of the first two self-published volumes helps to explain James Dodsley’s agreement to printing copies in which each page 169 and each page 170 showed uniquely marbled squares. Images from an original copy held at the British Library can be seen here. As Patrick Wildgust, director of Shandy Hall, explains in the booklet:
The central section of p. 169 was laid upon the marbled mixture in order that a coloured impression could be taken as cleanly as possible. This was left to dry and then reverse-folded so the other side of the paper could also receive its marbled impression. This side of the paper became page . As a result, the marbled page in every copy of Vol. III is different — each impression being a unique handmade image. In the text opposite on p. 168, Sterne tells the reader that the marbled page is the “motly emblem of my work” — the page communicating visually that his work is endlessly variable, endlessly open to chance.
Two favorites — one for page , one for  — artists with other works in the Books On Books Collection. Left: Ken Campbell. Right: Eric Zboya.
Paint Her To Your Own Mind (2018) Coxwold, UK: The Laurence Sterne Trust. Contains 147 numbered leaves in a brown paper-covered box (174 x 124 mm). The leaves are bright white cards (145 x 105 mm) on which contributed texts and illustrations (chiefly colour) are printed; the reverse of each provides the contributor’s comments on the text or illustration and the “page” number. Also enclosed are a “title page” and “index leaf” listing the contributors and their page numbers. Edition of 200. Acquired from Shady Hall, 6 June 2018. Photos: Books On Books Collection.
Page 147 of Sterne’s sixth volume of Tristram Shandy is blank. On the preceding page, he metaphorically throws up his hands over any attempt to describe the most beautiful woman who has ever existed and exhorts the reader: “To conceive this right, —call for pen and ink—here’s paper ready to your hand, —Sit down, Sir, paint her to your own mind—as like your mistress as you can—as unlike your wife as your conscience will let you—‘tis all one to me—please your own fancy in it.” So, accordingly, Shandy Hall invited 147 artists/writers/composers to follow Sterne’s instruction to fill the blank page 147. From the 9th through 30th of September 2016, their efforts were displayed in the Shandy Hall Gallery, Coxwold, York.
The curious reader can choose his or her own favorites here.
The Flourish of Liberty (2019)
In Volume IX on p. 17, the reader reads Corporal Trim’s advice to Uncle Toby, who stands at the Widow Wadman’s threshold about to propose marriage:
Nothing, continued the Corporal, can be so sad as confinement for life — or so sweet, an’ please your honour, as liberty. Nothing, Trim — said my Uncle Toby, musing — Whil’st a man is free — cried the corporal, giving a flourish with his stick thus —
The Flourish of Liberty (2019) Coxwold, UK: The Laurence Sterne Trust. Contains 103 numbered leaves in a gray paper-covered box (174 x 124 mm). The leaves are bright white cards (148 x 105 mm) on which contributed texts and illustrations (black and white, several in colour) are printed; the reverse of each provides the contributor’s comments on the text or illustration and the “page” number. Also enclosed are a “title page” and “index leaf” listing the contributors and their page numbers. Edition of 150, of which this is #133. Acquired from Shandy Hall, 26 October 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, thesign’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.
Borges, Jorge Luis. “Narrative Art and Magic” . 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” . 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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
“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”.
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.
And the entries are not in alphabetical order.
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 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.
In this room of touch, you move from sorrow to sorrow. Glass and ink do not separate you from them very much.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.